The League of Shadows. Set amid the devastation of post-war Vienna, The Third Man is a twisted take on the noir thriller — a black-and-white canvas for some very grey morality.
I suppose it was inevitable. You start making shadowy films and perhaps you give the camera a bit of a tilt. And I’ll be, that looks pretty damn cool. But soon you crave more — the tough streets aren’t tough enough; the light and dark still seem too grey; and that woozy angle, well, it feels more like a gentle lean. So you escalate — like a cinematic arms race: your Maltese Falcons become your Big Sleeps become your Out of the Pasts. But where does it end?
Apparently in Vienna.
Director Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1948) may not traffic in tough guy patois, but it is in many respects the ultimate in film noir. Who needs the mean streets when you have literally bombed out boulevards? Still too nice? — then we’ll take to the sewers. Shadows for atmosphere? — bah, make them dominate entire city blocks. And is there ever a need for the camera to be level? Written for the screen by acclaimed author Graham Greene, The Third Man is almost hallucinatory in its paranoia and intrigue. The film follows the inept sleuthing of Holly Martins — a failed novelist and walking personification of the ugly American — as he tries to clear the name of his friend Harry Lime. As twisting and turning as its cinematography, The Third Man is often cited as the best British film of all time. Continue reading
I like this plane! An American soldier drunkenly rants to a thieving Neapolitan street kid in a vignette from Paisà, Roberto Rossellini’s anthology of stories examining the effects of WWII on the Italian people and the Allied soldiers who fought against the fascists.
In 1945, during the closing months of World War II, Roberto Rossellini kicked of the neo-realism film movement in Italy with Rome, Open City, his look at Nazi oppression and the Italian anti-fascist resistance. Rossellini’s follow-up, Paisà (aka Paisan, 1946), is in much the same vein and serves as the second of a trilogy of neo-realist films examining aspects of the Second World War. (The third film — Germany, Year Zero — is also on the Sight & Sound list.) Like in Rome, Open City, Rossellini makes use of on-location shooting and a cast populated largely by amateur actors or non-actors, but the director tries to work on a much larger canvas for this film. Or perhaps that should be canvases, as Paisà is actually a collection of six stories that track the progress of the war as Allied troops move ever northward up the boot of Italy. Each story is an autonomous block, completely separate from the other tales, but they share the common thread of focusing on moments of interaction between Allied personnel and Italians either fighting in or affected by the conflict. Though spiked with humor, romance, and devout expressions of faith, Paisà is not a film that revels in the downfall of fascism. Instead it is unflinching in its presentation of the brutality of oppression and the violence and sacrifice it took to liberate a still-stricken nation. But through all the suffering Rossellini never preaches, it is left to the audience to decide upon the grand purpose of these tales. (120 min.) Continue reading
Nun too difficult. You are almost contractual obliged to use a bell-ringing shot atop any article about Powell & Pressburger’s Black Narcissus. And there is little wonder why, as this movie about a group of nuns atop a mountain in India is a visual feast of extraordinary sumptuousness.
After four movies set firmly within wartime Britain, filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger finally put World War II behind and look to the outskirts of Britain’s colonial empire for their fifth entry on the Sight & Sound list, Black Narcissus (1947). Though set in the mountains of northern India, the film sticks with a predominantly white, English cast (unfortunately even for a number of Indian roles), presenting the trials and tribulations of a group of nuns attempting to set up a school and clinic in a mountaintop palace. Few in number and living in isolation, the nuns (led by Powell’s beloved Deborah Kerr) struggle with their living situation, the local people, and among themselves as they try to cope atop the mountain. The film uses the nuns to delve into questions of faith, duty, colonial attitudes, lust, love, and madness. But the treatment of these themes is generally superficial, with the movie preferring to work more as an exercise in tone and image. And in that regard Black Narcissus is a thrilling work of art channeling the compositions of Vermeer, a liberal dash of Orientalism, and a sinister Technicolor palette to create an unreal world where enlightenment and derangement sit side by side. (100 min.) Continue reading
Crooked dealings. Alfred Hitchcock gets noiry with his angles and lighting in the post-WWII political thriller Notorious, starring Cary Grant (pictured), Ingrid Bergman, and Claude Rains.
And lo! Fan With a Movie Yammer has finally reached its first film by arguably the most famous director who ever lived. Yes, Alfred Hitchcock takes the stage in this yammer with his oldest entry on the Sight & Sound list: Notorious (1946). The British director certainly made a name for himself in his native land, getting into the directing biz back in the silent era, but it was in Hollywood where the “Master of Suspense” principally made his mark. And Notorious is a very Hollywood production in many ways, with its A-list stars, pro-America plotting, and Edith Head costumes. But the film runs darker than a lot of American studio productions, incorporating noir elements in its story of a federal agent (Cary Grant) enlisting the daughter of a Nazi spy (Ingrid Bergman) to infiltrate a ring of Nazi émigrés up to some sort of shady business down in Brazil. Though set after World War II, the film harnesses the trauma of that conflict and the brand new concerns of the nuclear age to craft a clockwork espionage thriller. And the movie largely lives up to its title, dealing in murky ethical waters with some very unsavory or emotionally damaged characters who are working to balance love and duty — even if the duty part may be quite distasteful indeed. (101 min.) Continue reading
Bothered and bewildered. Lust, guilt, faith, and the dark arts collide as the disenchanted Anne confronts her aging minister husband Absalom in Carl Th. Dreyer’s domestic drama set in the witch burning days of yore.
In what is generally considered his magnum opus — The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) — director Carl Theodor Dreyer chronicled the trial and execution of the titular heroine at the hands of vicious and merciless clergymen. The idea must have strongly resonated with Dreyer, as he tackles a similar situation in Day of Wrath (Vredens Dag, 1943), only this time during the 17th century witch hunts of his native Denmark. The film follows the troubled existence of Anne, a young woman trapped in a loveless marriage with an older clergyman. Mired in a strict, dour household and tormented by her implacable and disapproving mother-in-law, Anne meekly goes through the motions of being a dutiful housewife. But everything is thrown into disorder when she falls for her aged husband’s dashing son and gets wrapped up in the capture and execution of a local woman accused of being a witch. The result is the lighting of a slow fuse leading inevitably to tragedy and misery in the face of a social and religious order that cannot tolerate a young woman fulfilling her innermost desires. Beautifully shot and brimming with tension, Day of Wrath delves deep into the inevitability of fate and the devastating power of guilt and desire. (97 min.) Continue reading
Dead or alive. Allan Grey, or perhaps just a dream self, stares through a coffin window. Such stark lighting and inventive camera angles work to create a nightmare world of danger and confusion in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr.
If there is a difference between horror and suspense, it might might be said to come down to a question of opacity. Horror shows its hand; suspense keeps it hid but implies strongly. But perhaps more importantly, suspense isn’t necessarily meant to scare so much as to create a mood, an atmosphere in which anything — probably the worst anything — can happen. Despite featuring an undead blood sucker, a malevolent doctor, and a one-legged murderer, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) can’t really be said to be a horror film. It does, however, create a morbidly grim atmosphere that also manages to playfully tap into the realm of dreams and nightmares. The film is awash in strange lighting schemes, misbehaving shadows, off-kilter angles, and unorthodox performances, the sum of which create a picture that engages even as it strains comprehension. Vampyr is a movie of details more than a movie of scares, but its deliberate pace and bravura camerawork create a compact world of hypnotic beauty and grimy tension. (73 min.) Continue reading